Sweet and black, served in exquisitely decorated glasses: that’s how tea is drunk in northern Africa, where they believe the hot drink keeps the body cool in the scorching heat. In China, aromatic green tea has been used as medicine for more than 4 000 years.
And in Japan an entire ceremony has been developed around the preparation and enjoyment of tea, believed to balance body and mind.
Tea is a drink for which there are many occasions – it isn’t difficult to find a reason to enjoy a cup several times a day. Whether you opt for an invigorating pot of black tea at breakfast time or a soothing cup of rooibos when you’re feeling frazzled, there’s a tea to suit your every taste.
Types of tea
All traditional tea leaves come from the plant Camellia sinensis, which originated in China but is now grown in countries as far afield as Japan, Kenya and India.
Traditional tea is categorised by how it is processed and there are three main types: green, oolong and black.
Green tea leaves are dried directly after harvest; black tea leaves are wilted, fermented (oxidised) and then dried; and oolong tea leaves are only partially oxidised before being dried.
Teas are often named after the region where they were originally grown, such as Ceylon and Darjeeling.
A healthy brew
Tea can be included in most healthy eating plans, says Karlien Smit, dietician at Shelly Meltzer and Associates, which offers a dietary service at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. Up to four cups per day of traditional tea offer good health benefits, she notes.
Even though most studies tend to focus on the health properties of black and green tea, all three traditional teas – black, green and oolong – contain many of the same nutrients, albeit in varying amounts due to their different oxidation levels. They all have amino acids, minerals (such as fluoride) and important antioxidants.
Antioxidants capture free radicals, which damage cells in the body. Research shows that the antioxidants in tea may lower bad cholesterol and relax blood vessels, reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. They also have antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-cancer and anti-allergic properties.
Green tea contains more antioxidants, but black tea definitely also has health pluses. Studies show that regular black-tea drinkers have up to five times more antibacterial, immune-boosting proteins in their blood than people who favour coffee over tea.
Black-tea drinkers also have lower levels of stress hormones after stressful events. What’s more, black tea reduces the development of dental plaque and fights the bacteria that cause bad breath.
A word to the wise
While a cup of black tea contains roughly half the caffeine of a cup of coffee, and green tea contains only a third, those sensitive to caffeine should enjoy tea in moderation.
Decaffeinated teas aren’t recommended, since processing removes many of the nutrients along with the caffeine. But even though concentrated caffeine can dehydrate the body, the amounts in a cup of tea are so miniscule in relation to the water consumed that the beloved beverage is still considered a good way to stay hydrated.
Many of the good antioxidants in tea are tannins, which give tea its slightly astringent aftertaste. Unfortunately, tannins can restrict the body’s absorption of iron, so those who suffer from anaemia should not drink tea at mealtimes to allow the body to absorb as much iron as possible from food.
And even though black tea reduces dental plaque, it can stain your teeth. But this shouldn’t be a problem if you visit an oral hygienist regularly.
The perfect cuppa
Ming Wei, expert tea merchant at Origin Coffee Roasting, believes “the art of tea is in the making”. Each type of tea requires a different temperature and infusion time to unlock the full flavour and potential of the tea, he says.
Black tea should be infused in water just below boiling (90 - 95 °C) for three to five minutes. Oolong prefers water at 90 - 100 °C for one to three minutes, while green tea needs to steep in 60 - 80 °C water for a minute or two. Wei says using water at boiling point to brew delicate green tea leaves is “like washing fresh lettuce with hot water”.
And three to five minutes’ infusion for black tea ensures the most flavour and the highest antioxidant level, says Karlien Smit.
The tea merchant prefers to use loose, whole tea leaves when making tea because the leaves tend to be more carefully processed. High-quality teabags are a convenient alternative.
The jury is out on whether milk affects the nutrients in tea. Ming recommends drinking it unsweetened and without milk to “pick up the subtlety of the tea’s flavour”. According to Smit “adding sugar, full-cream milk or nondairy creamer can also increase one’s daily kilojoule intake and this may result in weight gain. Replacing sugar with honey won’t solve the problem – both have more or less the same amount of energy’’.
Home-grown herbal wonders
Tisanes, also known as herbal teas, are made by infusing dried or fresh herbs in hot water. Although they don’t contain leaves from the tea plant and therefore technically shouldn’t be called “tea”, tisanes are often consumed instead of traditional teas. Two local herbal teas that are gaining popularity internationally are rooibos and honeybush.
Rooibos (Aspalatus linearis), which is grown only in the Cederberg region of the Western Cape, has been enjoyed by South Africans for generations. Honeybush belongs to the Cyclopia plant species and is found throughout the Cape. Like black and oolong teas, honeybush and rooibos leaves are cut and then allowed to oxidise before being dried for use as tea.
Honeybush was used by the Khoisan to treat coughs. Today we know that it contains pinitol, a natural expectorant that helps the body expel mucus. Pinitol, according to research, can help regulate blood sugar levels, which is useful for diabetics and those seeking to stabilise their energy levels.
Honeybush also contains many powerful antioxidants, which are thought to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering cholesterol levels, and to relieve menopausal symptoms (such as low bone density) in older women. Some studies suggest that these antioxidants even protect against certain cancers.
Rooibos contains antioxidants known to have anti-bacterial, antifungal, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. Rooibos also contains antioxidants which have antispasmodic properties, which might be the reason why many mothers swear by rooibos as a treatment for colic in babies.
Both rooibos and honeybush contain negligible amounts of caffeine, which makes them a good choice for people sensitive to caffeine, including children. “But tea should never replace nutrient-dense fluids such as milk, especially in the case of young children or those who are failing to thrive,” Smit warns.
Rooibos and honeybush are low in tannin and contain many minerals such as potassium, iron, zinc and magnesium. They both contain good levels of vitamin C. And, best of all, there are no known side effects to consuming these two herbal teas!
Wei says that herbal teas can handle hotter temperatures and longer infusions than traditional teas. Infuse them for five to seven minutes in water that has just boiled. And while South Africans like adding milk and sugar to their rooibos, the same rules apply as with traditional teas: keep an eye on your kilojoule intake.
Which tea when?
When you wake up: Black tea – try one of the breakfast blends.
As a mid-afternoon pick-me-up: Oolong or aromatic green tea.
Before bed: Rooibos or honeybush, to soothe you to sleep. Camomile tea also helps you to unwind.
If you’re feeling run-down: Green tea or honeybush. If you have a sore throat, add a touch of raw honey, which has antiseptic properties. A slice of fresh ginger helps a queasy tummy while a slice of lemon provides a refreshing dose of vitamin C.
If you’re feeling stressed: Black tea or rooibos.
For the school lunch-box: Dilute your child’s favourite fruit juice with a cup of herbal tea, brewed in the morning to preserve as many nutrients as possible. Add ice cubes to chill. Mix rooibos with orange or cranberry juice, and honeybush with berry or apple juice.